What do Labels Really Mean?
A note from our nutritionist:
I suppose that because my job is designing pet foods I am very used to the issue of labelling. I was surprised recently when someone asked me ‘why do they put ash in dog food?’ As with most things the answer is not straight forward.
If we start at the beginning then I suppose the most important thing to look for on the pack is the general description of the product. It will say either ‘A complete food for dogs’ or ‘A complementary food for dogs.’ Treats are a typical complementary product. While the difference seems obvious the term ‘complete’ has a legal definition in that it must cover all life stages, including working dogs’ pregnancy and lactation and the older dog. You may see the wording is qualified and may for example stipulate an age when the food should be introduced. You will also find a feeding guide on pack. I always issue a word of warning here in fairness to the manufacturers. The issue is around the level of activity which can significantly influence the quantity of food the dog needs. Obviously, the concern here is to avoid obesity. This is a whole subject in itself but in brief you should be condition scoring your dog and also monitoring weight. With the advent of the number of dogs with ‘poo’ or ‘oodle’ in their names this becomes more important because we have no typical body weight to go by.
The information on the label is obviously designed to inform the consumer but what do all the terms mean and can they be misleading? Some of the information in the sections called ‘analytical constituents’ and ‘nutritional additives’ are required by law. Other declared items are entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer.
LEGALLY REQUIRED LABELLING INFORMATION
In the legally required group of ‘analytical constituents’, we have Crude Protein, Crude Oils and Fats, Crude Fibre and Ash. Ash can also be called Inorganic Matter. In the ‘nutritional additives’ section we have by law Vitamin A, Vitamin D3, Iodine, Iron, Copper, Manganese, Zinc and Selenium. The reason why these particular nutrients are specified is that there is a legal maximum for their use in food so the declaration shows that the levels added are below that legal maximum. While not a legal requirement most companies include Vitamin E in the declaration. You will also see that in addition to the named element, the source of that element is also declared. Opinion varies but the general feeling is that Oxides are the least available to the animal while chelated sources are considered to pass most easily through the gut wall for better availability. The difference is also significant in terms of cost, chelates being by far the most expensive. The other thing that has to be declared is moisture if it is over 14%. A typical dry dog food is around 8% moisture. Tinned foods are high in moisture and also semi moist treats which are around 20%.
Here is where Noochy Poochy’s moisture content is listed and here is where our chelated minerals are listed (PIC)
Looking at analytical constituents and nutritional additives in a bit more detail.
The crude protein
The crude protein figure is not really protein at all, it is nitrogen. The figure on the pack is the nitrogen content multiplied by 6.25 on the basis that all protein on average contains 16% nitrogen. It is at this point that I usually make my shoe leather reference. Leather has a very high protein content as measured by nitrogen but would you feed your dog a leather shoe?* The critical word here is digestible, can the dog obtain the essential amino acids from the protein sources in the food?
All protein is composed of amino acids. 10 amino acids are called ‘essential’ for the dog – that is to say must be supplied in the food, the dog’s body cannot synthesise them. Other types of amino acid can be synthesised in the liver assuming the ‘ingredients’ are in the food. They are essential in the sense that they will be part of the building blocks of particular proteins of which there are over 200 in the body. We might hope that the information on ingredients contained in the ‘composition’ section of the label would help to answer this question which I will deal with later.
Oils and Fats
Oils and Fats are fairly straightforward, however, there is one issue – High fat (anything over 13%) will provide a lot of calories and we all know that if there are more calories going in than there are coming out the excess will be stored as fat. Unfortunately, there is usually no description as to the type of fat. With a few exceptions, high levels of the so-called saturated fats give calories without any health advantages – while in some vegetable oils, the unsaturated fats present have beneficial effects particularly from the omega 3,6 and 9 fatty acids. Some companies do provide this information on the label. It is understandable to a point that dog food companies use fat because they are extremely palatable (particularly saturated fats). For instance, fat may also be sprayed on to the outside of extruded foods (dry kibble) to enhance palatability.
Crude Fibre. This should not be confused with dietary fibre which is what is declared on human food packaging and can be a very good thing. Crude fibre is part of dietary fibre but in fact is completely indigestible to the animal. It is analysed by boiling a sample of the food in acid and the residue that remains is crude fibre. Because it is completely indigestible it will be voided in the faeces. High levels of crude fibre will have the effect of increasing faecal volume and reducing calorie density. Almost by definition and because of plant structure, plant-based diets will tend to be slightly higher in fibre than a good quality meat-based diet (but lower than a low quality meat-based diet). As with a lot of nutrients it is difficult to say what the right level is particularly since it is non-essential in a nutritional sense, but even on a plant-based diet crude fibre levels should not exceed 5%. An exception to this might be if the food is aimed at senior dogs where the crude fibre could be used specifically as a means of reducing calorie density for the less active dog.
Ash/ Inorganic Matter. What is it? Manufacturers do not, as my questioner thought, add ash as an ingredient, instead it is that almost all ingredients have an ash content (the exception being oils and fats). If a sample of the food is burned in a muffle furnace the resulting left-over material is the ash. Unlike crude fibre which has little or no value to the dog, ash is composed of minerals some of which were mentioned before, others are the major minerals such as Calcium Phosphorus and Magnesium. This doesn’t mean high ash is a good thing however – it’s all about balance – let’s look at this in a bit more detail to explain.
* Well, you do in a way with rawhide chews – they are high in protein but are almost totally indigestible!
Essential minerals can be supplied in two ways, from the ingredients or as additions. Plant based diets are naturally low in ash so in order to meet the dog’s need for Calcium and Phosphorus these are added as supplements (for instance Noochy Poochy’s Calcium is supplemented in its natural mineral state). Meat itself also has a very low ash content but the bone meal then added provides the Calcium and Phosphorus hence an ash content. The quality of the ingredient then is based on the proportion of meat to bone. Some cheap (high bone to meat proportion) meat and bone meals contain as much as 40% ash. It is difficult again to give a figure for what the ash level should be but I would suggest that an ash level of around 7.5% would indicate adequate levels of calcium and phosphorus in a meat based food while not having excess mineral matter in the food. It would obviously be helpful if the manufacturer did show some of those figures on the label. If the ash level of a meat-based food is 9% or over – you have to wonder why – more than likely it’s just full of bones!
As a plant-based food, as discussed above Noochy Poochy’s Calcium and Phosphorus is specifically supplemented in with precision (i.e. not reliant on bone) and it’s ash level is 6.9% – supplying the required Calcium and Phosphorus for adult dog’s needs, without excess mineral matter in the food.
The next part of the label and the one we are perhaps most interested in is called ‘Composition’. Ingredients might be a more obvious choice of word but composition it is. I have no aim to try and pick on any particular brand, the aim is to offer an interpretation of some of the potential issues. The list of ingredients on the label should be shown in decreasing order by weight, known as ‘the mixing bowl principle’.
The other thing to say about the raw materials is that they can be described on the label in two ways. One is to use a defined category which is fairly non-specific. For example, all grains in any form can be included under the heading of cereals. The definition for this group is ‘All types of cereals, regardless of their presentation, or products made from the starchy endosperm.’
There are 19 categories which should cover virtually all raw materials given the general nature of the definitions. If the manufacturer wants to specify a cereal on the front of the pack e.g. ‘’made with real oats!’’, it must be in the correct place in the list and the quantity stated, so Oats (10%) is how it would be shown in the composition list.
VOLUNTARY LABELLING INFORMATION
iIn addition to abiding by the above labelling requirements, the pet food industry also operate under an agreed voluntary code. This has been devised by a pan-European organisation made up of local associations from all over Europe, known as FEDIAF. This code of practice, while voluntary, is designed to avoid claims and information on the pack that could mislead the consumer. A good example would be avoiding wording that could be considered as a health claim.
Looking in a bit more detail. In this code of practice if the manufacturer makes a ‘with’ claim for a particular ingredient then there must be at least 4% of that ingredient in the mix and again the actual percentage has to be specified.
There are exceptions to this rule.
If the product had a ‘with’ claim for something like Glucosamine, then the 4% rule would not apply because a typical inclusion for Glucosamine might be 0.1% and this figure would have to be shown. Some people ask why percentages are not shown for all ingredients i.e. an open recipe. There are two reasons for that, a company may have invested a lot of money on research and does not want to give away information to competitors and also recipes have to be changed due to availability of ingredients so with a fixed recipe a lot of pre-printed packaging might have to be disposed of.
THINGS THAT ARE NOT ALWAYS AS THEY SEEM
I suppose the first thing to address is where the declaration of the animal protein content is referred to by its category definition i.e., ‘meat and animal derivatives’. This can also be called meat and bone meal but that is somewhat less appealing. As I said in the section on ash this is where the ash will come from – the amount depending on the bone content. It also means that the material (which in the UK is always derived from human food quality materials despite what you read!) will be from a mix of species. Where foods are based on single species e.g., lamb then the cost of that ingredient will be much higher.
Another thing that may cause confusion. If you see on the label for example ‘fresh chicken’ (40%) that puts fresh chicken as the first ingredient in the list and so appeals to consumers who think their dogs need a lot of meat.
However, that chicken is probably as much as 80% water which will be driven off during the manufacturing process because the finished product will be 10% moisture or less. So as the Americans say ‘do the math’, the chicken at 40% of the ‘mixing bowl’ will go from 80% water down to 10% water which means 12% dry chicken in the finished product.
Another thing that causes confusion is where the ‘with’ claim is loosely interpreted. You may have seen on products, particularly those with a range of coloured ingredients wording like ‘a minimum of 4% X in the white kibble’ The fact that the white kibble is only 10% of the total then 4% becomes 0.4%. Attempts have been made to stop this practice through the voluntary code.
You may see on the label what can occur when dried fruit or vegetables are included in the food. The manufacturer is allowed to use a rehydration claim so on the label it might say dried blueberries (0.5%) in the right place in the order but followed by the words (equivalent to 5% fresh blueberries) I don’t have a problem with this but some people do object.
Why then such a wide range of prices in the dog food market? The answer must relate to the number and cost of ingredients. It would be perfectly possible to produce a dog food based predominantly on Cereals, Meat and Animal Derivatives, Oils and Fats and minerals. Such a product could be called ‘complete’ as it meets the guidelines. It would certainly be the cheapest option on the market particularly if presented in a large bag.
On the other hand, there are products with as many as 40 different ingredients with the vast majority having a very low inclusion, although one might challenge the efficacy of something that is included at 0.05%. Some people have found another trick for this which is to declare the inclusion as mg/kg which gives an apparently much larger number. The rules though state it should be a percentage.
A lot of these low inclusion ingredients are very expensive, for instance some herbs can cost as much as £25/kg. Additives are also included because the consumer believes they are beneficial. This often applies to herbs where anecdotally they are supposed to have particular beneficial properties and are seen as ‘good things.’ This all adds up to some very high prices for some so-called premium products.
I hope this has shed some light and not caused further confusion. Your protection is the word complete. This does not mean that you cannot make additions. Remember though that with things like treats which are regularly given or for some people still like to add some tinned food or meat to a dry complete product if the amount of these supplementary items exceeds about 5% of daily intake then you should reduce the quantity of the dry food accordingly.